We’re almost to the end of the original Season Four front order. Things are building to what was once a possible series finale. So same old, same old…
After the jump we’ll look at Gobbler, with plenty of Volkoff, Mary, and a little Charah.
When it first ran, Gobbler was my least favorite episode of Season Four. As often happens on these re-watches, the big picture makes some of the bothersome issues a little less bothersome, and I find the episode easier to enjoy for its own merits. Although a few problems remain. I don’t believe this will ever be a favorite episode of mine, but I did find plenty to enjoy this time.
So let’s start with the good. Dark Sarah making her grand entrance for Volkoff is just awesome. Is there any other way to put that?! Casually destroying a group of armed thugs just to make a point… Volkoff is right; she is so much fun! Volkoff himself is at his best in much of this episode; from painting puppies, to uh, not dealing with disappointment well, to plotting how he’s going to break Sarah. This is a brilliant, demented performance.
I also really enjoy the jail break mission. It is bookended with a couple of nice Charah moments, and has Chuck taking down a monster of a thug. A bit of meta-humor too, Matthew Willig has now played two different villains on the show named Uri (Tango) and Yuri. Should have been Darryl and Darryl… But Chuck himself gets a pretty impressive destruction of the hoodlum; his stay as prison top dog doesn’t last long though until he’s usurped by Sarah (!). Casey and Morgan throwing a distracting birthday celebration fills out the mission. And I think that’s just fun all around.
The final action sequence is well done. Obviously a bit dark, but I like this as a bit of clever and evil gamesmanship from the master criminal. I also like how clearly we see Sarah dealing with the mission, she will do what she must while clinging to her own humanity.
But this leads directly to what I still have some problems with. Let’s back up a step. For starters, I just don’t like the forced separation as a story device. No, its not a huge thing or a game breaker in any sense. But its not what I want for these characters or this show, so its sort of a wrong foot start that the writers have to come back from. The bizarre tonal communication device might have seemed funny in the writer’s room, but was too forced, too dumb for me. Again, not a big thing, just a dud moment. Chuck’s insistence that his Sarah will never change is getting to be a little more irksome. This is likely about setting up the “shocking” moment where Chuck sees Sarah punch Casey through a high rise window. Unfortunately, I think its one of those things that undermines the main character by making him look very stupid. It might have worked better if Morgan had offered it as brain dead words of comfort. But Chuck of all people should know better than to say such a thing. Sarah has done many hard and ugly things, and she has changed as much as any character on the show. But now she’s like a recovering alcoholic who just got a job as bartender; and Chuck deciding to act like she is impervious to any threats related to immersion in a mission environment is painfully clueless. Rather, he should have been very concerned for her safety and her soul. Obviously, this bothered me quite a lot!
But the biggest hang up I have with this episode has to do with the Mary/Sarah relationship. Specifically that Sarah is made to look so naive about undercover work that she needs coaching from Mary on the matter. The problem I have with this is that Mary seems a spectacularly bad example. She hasn’t coped, she’s sold out. I needed to see Sarah coming in to force the issue of resolving Mary’s mission. This could have worked a few ways. I’ve mentioned a few times that I like the idea that Mary actively has switched sides, and I could see Sarah having to win her over by reminding her of what she’s lost and what used to be important to her. Both professional and personal things. A despondent Mary could work too, and Sarah provides encouragement and motivation. But Mary as senior partner does not work for me. Almost from the start of the series we have too many reasons to not really like Mary much; and in this case we are supposed to sympathize with her too quickly. Her redemption feels unearned, or worse, at Sarah’s expense, and it doesn’t work well for me. The problem may have to do with how little screen time they are actually willing to devote to Mary, and it almost feels like a shortcut to show her to us through instructing Sarah.
And its easy to forget there was a “B” plot here. This was one of the simpler/briefer ones I think, that’s probably fitting with so much meat in the “A” plot. But short as it was, I think the “Grunka” story was very funny. Possibly one of the funnier “B” plots of the season. Oh I checked, “Grunka” really is kitchenware sold at Ikea.
All that said, this is not a terrible episode. We have observed many times that Chuck is a multi-genre sort of show, and sometimes the complicated interplay of elements works better than others. Gobbler may fall short of many other episodes, but it still provides plenty of excellent moments and an enjoyable 43 minutes. And the resolution of the arc next week will be even better!
Explaining Everything To The Geeks
Like usual, I’m tempted to write “in response” to Dave’s post. I do that a lot, especially when we’re in agreement. But this time it’s not going to sound that way. The difference is that I’m not going to write as logically as Dave. I’m going to write emotionally.
From the right side of my brain, then, Chuck vs. The Gobbler is not a middling episode. It is a powerhouse, and I won’t mince words here, it’s one of the best. As is often the case, it began at the end of Balcony with Sarah (and some of us fans) barely able to control the bitter sadness of both Chuck’s interrupted proposal and her tearful departure in chains. Like I tried to point out last week, it wasn’t that Sarah was a prisoner. It was worse. Sarah was going into the same undercover-hell that took Mary twenty years earlier.
Let me rephrase that. It took Mary from Chuck twenty years earlier and now it was taking Sarah. No matter who you identify with, it’s a very bitter thought.
Oh, wait! That’s not the mood when the episode starts at all!
Chuck’s spirits are good. Sarah will be back soon and at least for now, they can communicate through those weird beeps and tones in a language devised for them by the CIA.
[Pardon me a moment while I fantasize that the CIA got that bit of technology and encryption know-how from an agent known as Orion. He perfected it several years earlier; that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.]
Chuck’s pretty upbeat because he knows that Sarah won’t change. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Be naive, Chuck. Well, actually, Volkoff’s not sure himself that she will. In fact, following the Reagan dictum (“Trust, but verify.” for you youngsters), Volkoff doesn’t believe her at all. So how can Sarah convince him she’s telling the truth? By telling the truth, of course.
Sarah: Years ago, I told Chuck that I didn’t want him to be a spy. I tried to get him to run away with me.
Volkoff: But despite all your pleadings, he said no.
Sarah: He did.
Volkoff: I knew it.
Sarah: But I still loved him. We got trapped in a CIA-run world with no way out. No exit. Unless…
Volkoff: There’s always an unless.
Sarah: …unless I took matters into my own hands. I turned on the CIA because I wanna cash out and build a life.
It may sound foolish, but I’m trying to buy a future with the man that I love.
The truth in her words is undeniable, and so is the cold, emotionless darkness from which they come. Several commenters have noted over the years that it was rather dumb (and by extension, not intelligent writing) that Frost did not take a single one of her myriad opportunities to off Volkoff. Perhaps. I noticed that Sarah makes the same decision just a little later in her “interview” with the weapons dealer.
Volkoff: Miss Walker, even if you’ve told me the truth about your motives, why would I trust you?
Sarah: Fair question. The reason you’re going to trust me is because I’m not gonna kill you right here and right now.
Like it or not, Sarah’s all in. There’s very little deception here; Volkoff knows Sarah cannot be trusted and he also knows that Mary intended to betray him at first. But he’s also certain that he can turn her to his advantage, just like he did Frost. Despite what we’ve seen so far of the relationship between Frost and Volkoff, it’s not clear that he’s wrong. He gets great pleasure from bending people to his will, after all.
Can Sarah be broken like that? I wouldn’t think so. There’s plenty in Gobbler that’s lite (as in low calorie) and humorous in nature. I especially love Mekenna as Alex here. and her interactions with Morgan. Matthew Willig is imposing no matter how many Y/Uri’s he plays. Dalton proves himself to be one of the best. There’s certainly a little humor in Chuck’s prison number (it’s Zak’s birthday).
But the focus of this episode and therefore it’s power, is squarely on that question. Can Sarah be broken? And if Sarah can’t be broken, can she be bent?
Mary: [whispers] We should go. I need you to realize that going undercover in a place like this can require certain difficult choices.
Sarah: I’m well aware.
Mary: You may find yourself becoming someone you no longer recognize.
Can she do this and remain someone that Chuck can love? Did Frost? That is the thing troubling Sarah in the van as she leaves Chuck by the prison. That’s the heartache when Sarah asks the more experienced agent how she’s coped with it for so long.
That is the problem for Chuck and for the viewers when Sarah declines his phone call.
Leave your home
Change your name
Eat your cake
I’ll explain everything to the geeks
Sarah is very alone when she declines that call. She has to be. Agent Sarah Walker acted emotionless in front of Volkoff but she’s no longer the cold-school assassin she once was.
Sarah has Chuck now and friends who care about her and an extended family of people she didn’t know just four years earlier, which makes it all the more difficult to do her job. Doing what Mary did, just leaving without a word for an indeterminable amount of time, is something that they will wonder about and think about for – in Chuck’s case – decades. You can logically refute every reason that might be given for why Sarah must be alone, but that’s almost meaningless. This time it’s the emotional reasons that count.
Bookends and Parallels and Contrasts
Well, since Joe took the emotional route, I’ll follow an analytical path. I’m with Joe on really liking this episode, but more from the logical than emotional standpoint … oh and all the wonderful moments Dave pointed out. Some great stuff.
Gobbler was one of those episodes that I had to watch twice to figure out that I liked it, and the more I’ve watched it and thought about it, the more I like it. I like what I see behind and around the story, especially how it fits into broader themes and stories. I also like what I see inside the story, with its great scenes and moments. Of course, hindsight helps. Though aired separately, Gobbler and Push Mix are pretty much two halves of one episode. So I’ll write with the foreknowledge of hindsight — one of the advantages of rewatches. 🙂
Bookends — Lots and Lots of Bookends: It came up a couple of weeks ago that CF likes bookends. Bookends define context and serve to identify themes and story lines … and Gobbler is full of them. So, I’d like to organize my thoughts in the context of the bookends.
Gobbler’s story spans two episodes, concludes an arc, and bookends four stories: Mary’s mission, Stephen’s mission, the current spy story (finding mom) and the current normal story (the proposal). Obviously some of these are better left for next week’s discussion.
The setup for Gobbler was Balcony Leftovers. Leftovers was the bookend to Aisle of Terror, and the setup for Aisle of Terror was Anniversary. (All these nested stories … it’s kind of like computer programming, Joe.)
The first thing we see MamaB do is read her son a bedtime story. The next thing we see her do is kill someone to protect that same little boy (well, not so little anymore, but try telling a mother that). Aha, another pair of bookends. What happened between those bookends to turn MamaB the story reader into MamaB the terminator? Of course, that is the S4 mystery to unravel and the back story of the current spy story.
In every subsequent meeting, Mary sticks to her story that everything she has ever done has been to protect her family (not take care of them, not run for mother of the year, or even love them properly … but to protect them). In Anniversary, her biggest nightmare is delivered to her front door step (via public transportation :)). Oh Chuck.
From there, things just keep going sideways …
In Aisle of Terror, she risks breaking cover to protect Chuck. She fakes his death, enlists Sarah in her mission to protect him, and makes sure that he can’t come after her again (PSP).
And more sideways …
In Leftovers, she ends up breaking her cover to save her son. By the end of Leftovers, the mission that went sideways more ways than a car hitting black ice at 90 MPH, Gobbler is set up:
The danger is clear and present. The safety of the Bartowskis teeters on a razor’s edge, with Volkoff holding Family Bartowski, Team Bartowski, and Mary Bartowski hostage. One false move on Mary’s part and her family dies. If TeamB gets too close to Volkoff, Mary dies. There’s an 800 pound psychotic gorilla in the courtyard, with a ticking bomb strapped to his chest. It’s not a question of if, but when, it will explode. Sarah more than anyone knows what this means, Your mom is the only thing keeping us safe, and she can’t come back until Volkoff is destroyed. He knows too much, and the ultimate implications.
The agents for the final mission have all the Intel they need to make mission impossible a possibility. Between two of our bookends (Aisle of Terror and Leftovers), Sarah puts Chuck’s mom under her spy’s microscope. At every opportunity she scrutinizes, analyzes, and evaluates. But hey, at least it’s not one sided. Mary has a microscope of her own, and Sarah is her latest specimen. Hypotheses are formed at the end of First Fight. By Leftovers, the evidence is conclusive, and the two women have formed a crucial bond. Mary takes Sarah under her maternal wing (mishapen as it is), and Sarah has a clear picture of Mary’s situation: her mission, her position, and her dilema. Sarah believes Mary’s story. More important, she knows she can trust Mary. Here’s where I diverge with Dave’s take. Sarah couldn’t have gone in to help bring down Volkoff and bring Mary home without knowing that Mary was still one of the good guys — one she could trust — and would finish the mission and come home if she could.
The Mission and the Parallels: Sarah’s mission to bring down Volkoff and bring Mary home (I’m not coming back without your mom) bookends Mary’s mission to bring down Volkoff and protect her family. I believe Mary when she said her mission was more complicated than it appeared, and I’m willing to accept her explanation that she was trapped. The Agent X reveal coupled with the Decker reveal bolster her story. (I know I’m in the minority.)
I buy that Sarah had to be the one to do this mission, not only from a story telling perspective, but also because no one else would be remotely believable for Volkoff to accept or suitably interesting for him to toy with. (You are such fun.)
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Sarah/Mary dynamic develop, from holding guns on each other to tentative trust to partners and family. Their meeting on the frigid, unsurveiled square meter in Volkoff’s compound establishes their relationship as both professional and familial. Sarah calls Mary Mrs. Bartowski, not her spy handle (Frost), not a partner’s name (Mary), but a family name, like a daughter-in-law might address her future mother-in-law. I’m here to help you take down Volkoff and get you the hell out of here. Perfect.
As for Mary, she accepts Sarah’s professional help and lays out the first step toward bringing down Volkoff and his network … but not without expressing more than partner-y concern for Sarah — Sarah the woman, not just Sarah the spy. Also perfect.
Another small quibble. Whereas Mary’s mission wasn’t a success, she has more knowledge of Volkoff and the situation than anyone. Sarah would be foolish to go in as Agent in Charge. I can see how the “advice” moments could rankle, but I liked how well they worked together.
The parallels are obvious between the two women and their missions — and between the two couples. The threat is also the same. Will Sarah lose herself to this mission like Mary did? Will Chuck and Sarah’s story end up a tragic repetition of Stephen and Mary’s story? Will Chuck and Sarah win, or will the spy world win? This is specifically the Gobbler/Push Mix story and generally the C/S story going forward.
(Now, I totally agree with Dave that Chuck should have been more concerned and less clueless.)
Tests: Sarah gets another “red test,” this time from a man one would actually expect to issue them. If there was another parallel niggling at the fringe of consciousness, here it is. Chuck? … S3? Then, Sarah watched Chuck descend into the spy world, fearing he would lose himself. Now Sarah is the one going back into that world, with all of us hoping she won’t lose the person she has become with Chuck. The red test plays out in parallel. Chuck witnesses Sarah do something horrific — unthinkable. And, worse, Volkoff tells him that she’s doing it all for him. Only it isn’t at all what he thinks, and Casey is the key to the truth.
As for the bump in the road, the last scene, it has never bothered me as much as it has Dave and some others. Sarah is in a lonely world of hurt. I may not agree with Mary’s advice, but I like that Mary tried to comfort Sarah (with the same gesture she comforted Ellie in First Fight).
So, why did TPTB go that route … have Sarah reject the call? Well, admittedly they like to string certain episodes together with threads of angst (like this arc). That factor aside, whether or not I agree with Sarah’s rejecting the call, I understand it a little. Wise or not, she tried to numb the ache and survive through distance, which seems in keeping with Sarah’s old self and with prevailing spy wisdom. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s part of the story TPTB wanted to tell. It concretizes the questions gathering around Chuck and Sarah’s fate, concerning the parallels between them and Chuck’s parents. This story lets Chuck and Sarah experience briefly what Stephen and Mary experienced over a lifetime: Sarah, the pain of isolation; and Chuck, the pain of loss … the real risks of trying to balance two worlds.
Which brings us to …
Contrasts: CHUCK does contrast really well. From dressing-for-the-date in the Pilot to mission prep in Tango to mission/date prep in First Date and on through the series to the end of Business Trip, CHUCK contrasts the spy world and the real/normal world. The spy world, always lurking below the surface, holds the real world hostage. Whenever the barrier is breached, the dangers of the spy world threaten Chuck’s normal life.
Nobody knows this better than Mary (and Stephen). Their failure to balance the two worlds cost Chuck and Ellie their parents and a normal childhood. Right now (and for the rest of the series) the spy world keeps threatening to rob Chuck and Sarah of the life they want to have together.
For contrast (for me anyway) the best montage is the end of Business Trip, and the best episode is Gobbler, whose contrast of worlds is brilliant. From beginning to end, the juxtaposition of scenes and the A and B plots contrasts the cold dark spy-world with the sunny real-world. As Chuck consumes his breakfast of cereal and orange juice, Sarah lifts her shot of vodka to toast her suicide mission. In the real world, people fall in love and pick out baby names. In the spy world, disappointing the boss gets you suspended dead, and world domination isn’t a board game.
Gobbler is a heavy episode, yet still Chuck-like. It weaves Chuck’s main dramatic theme – the delicate balance of opposing worlds – with comedy (funny! Ellie), action (Sarah and the Volkoff goons), family (Grunka/Clara), romance (the Castle rendezvous), and heart. The heart in Gobbler isn’t as overt and warm and fuzzy as Chuck’s usual fare. It’s in subtle friendship, like Casey playing board games to keep Chuck’s mind off of Sarah. It’s in the kinship and caring of two women working together to stop a madman. But most of all, it’s in the love: not the sweet rosy kind, but the determined gritty kind seen in Sarah’s sacrificial love to save her family and Chuck’s unyielding love to get them all back. In this story, against the odds, love will win the day. And that is very Chuck.
All of this, despite its heavier tone, makes Gobbler a big win for me.